This is the text of the talk I’m giving this afternoon at an Oxford Academic IT #OxEngage panel on ‘Blogging and Digital Scholarship’. I was asked to talk about why I blog and the relationship between my blogging and my research and teaching.
If truth be told, I started my blog because I wanted to find some external funding for sabbatical leave to finish a book on Middle English poetics. I need external funding because I am employed by St Edmund Hall as a Stipendiary Lecturer, someone whose job is predominantly to teach. I have some research funding, but no sabbatical leave. I work as a five-hour Stipendiary Lecturer because I want to work part-time whilst our daughter is growing up.
A Research Facilitator suggested a couple of years ago that I might apply for a particular Research Fellowship which required applicants to show that they could communicate with a broad audience. This seemed as if it would be difficult given how tied I was to home at that point. So I decided to try virtual communication instead. Rather than travelling far and wide to talk about my research, or organising evening events, I would communicate online at a time that suited me.
I’ve thus been blogging since January 2014 and I post two or three times a month. In just over two years, I’ve had 35,000 views of the blog by 15,000 users. I use my Twitter feed to advertise new posts and find readers who might like the blog. I have about twelve hundred followers on Twitter, which perhaps doesn’t sound a lot, but it leads to about 50,000 tweet ‘impressions’ each month and between one and two thousand views of my Twitter profile each month. These numbers might sound rather small, but I’m really pleased by them given that my research is pretty niche. I work on medieval poetry, mostly the century and a half after Chaucer which not many people care for, and I work on technical matters of versification, prosody, and rhyme: not exactly the stuff of wide appeal. My book is both a study of poetic experiment in this period and a glossary of terms for discussing the technology of poetry, terms which begin to appear in English in the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.
Blogging has been so productive for me because the format of the blog intersects profitably with the format of the research needed for this book. One of the jobs I’ve had to do for the book is to skim-read a lot of the lesser-known verse written between 1350 and 1550, looking for technical terms and moments of experimentation with form. This has thrown up lots of interesting oddities and delights in passing, and I’ve turned many of these into blog posts. They are mostly about Middle English verse form in some way, though written (I hope) accessibly and entertainingly, with Modern English translation supplied alongside all of the medieval poetry. I’ve written roughly 70,000 words in blog posts over the last two years, and I realise that I’ve drafted quite a lot of material which will form part of the book, without even trying.
This habit of mind, always looking for interesting things for the blog, has driven me to chase up and pursue things which I might otherwise have put aside without investigation. I’ve explored the early history of the limerick, a medieval poem about a migraine, and a poem in which a Tudor printer talks to a medieval manuscript. Finding out enough about each thing to write confidently about them in public has thrown up unexpected avenues for research. Exploring a lyric written by a nobleman on the eve of his execution led me to realise that the entire critical history of one poetic form which was supposedly used by Middle English writers, the virelai, was wrong. From that blog, written in March 2014, has come an article to be published in Medium Ævum this spring.
Another task for the book involves writing glossary entries on each of the technical terms I’ve been researching. I’ve drafted each of these as blog posts, building them into an online glossary of Middle English poetics. I have nearly 30 entries written so far, and I think it’s true to say that, without the outlet of the blog, the thoughts and research underpinning these entries would still be stuck in my head without articulation. The useful pressure to have something to say and something meaningful to contribute, drives me to get words on the webpage rather than putting off writing to some future point.
The benefits of blogging for me, in my particular situation, have been more than I ever expected. The blog is a way to make myself visible, even when I’m often hidden in the domestic sphere. It travels everywhere when I can’t. It’s like a virtual shop-window, in which I can display what I’m working on well in advance of publication. This has, I think, led to various opportunities which would otherwise have been perhaps unlikely for a part-time college lecturer: an expenses-paid trip to Los Angeles, contributing to major press companions, for example.
The blog, and more particularly Twitter, have given me a sense of who my audience is: that there is an audience out there waiting for the book, mostly academic but also keen amateurs. It has made me feel more expert after years when I had lost my way as regards my research.
It has also made me more productive. Blogging requires free and easy writing, and, as you might expect, the low-stakes nature of writing for a blog means that writing feels comfortable now. Informal blog posts can be easily rewritten into more formal academic prose. Writing without footnotes, writing to find out what I think, is liberating.
Finally, though, a reality-check. I didn’t get my externally funded fellowship in the end, so the book will have to be written the hard way. It’s wishful thinking, at least at present, to believe that blog posts can take the place of journal articles, book chapters and monographs on a CV. It’s wishful thinking to believe, having voluntarily leapt onto the “Mummy Track”, that I can jump back to a full-time post at some point. And it’s still very very hard to be “visible” in a Stipendiary Lecturership in Oxford. But the blog has allowed me to define who I am and what I am doing, not only to others but to myself.